KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – Is it arrogance, hypocrisy or just pure stupidity?
That is what the players competing this week in the European Tour’s inaugural Saudi International, which begins today, are saying about the comments by Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
In his recent pontifications on TV, Chamblee stated that the players are turning a blind eye toward Saudi Arabia’s history of human-rights violations and the killing last fall of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident. Chamblee labeled the tour and any players competing here “a ventriloquist for this abhorrent reprehensible regime.” The CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the Oct. 2 slaying, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi government denied any involvement.
It’s easy to sit in Golf Channel’s headquarters in Orlando, Fla., and spout off about what other players should do. In fact, that’s his job when it concerns what’s happening on the golf course. However, geopolitics seem to be far above his pay grade.
It’s even easier when Golf Channel has not sent one reporter to Saudi Arabia this week, as the network typically would do for most big events. This tournament certainly is a big event, with four of the top five players in the world competing (tee times).
World No. 1 Justin Rose of England would tell you that his reason for being here is to support the European Tour and to spread the game and support its growth globally.
Chamblee would counter that Rose’s comments are contemptuous and that Rose and the other competitors do not fully understand what they are doing.
But in contrast, the competitors here know what they are doing. Nobody here seeks to minimize the human-rights issues in a nation that adheres to Islam’s strict Sharia law, does not tolerate internal opposition and only recently allowed women to drive. At the same time, touring pros understand that golf’s future could be in jeopardy without trying to expand the game’s base and expose a country such as Saudi Arabia to world-class tournament golf.
In fact, the growth model comes from what happened in Dubai during the past 30 years. Since 1989, when the Dubai Desert Classic debuted on Dubai’s only grass golf course, more than a dozen courses have opened throughout the United Arab Emirates.
The European Tour holds two big events in Dubai annually, and virtually every player who competes there talks highly of the experience.
Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, who was involved in the early stages of golf in Dubai, sees many parallels to Saudi Arabia today. He understands that the game must start somewhere, and while that debut might not always be neat and tidy, change comes when countries are exposed to other thoughts and cultures.
In a roundtable discussion Wednesday, Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, president of the Saudi Arabian Golf Federation, addressed Khashoggi’s death, plus the worldwide impression of Saudi Arabia.
“It wasn't something we're proud of or sponsored by the government,” Al-Rumayyan said. “We want to have better life for our people in Saudi. The quality of life has to improve. It's not a choice. That's a must.”
Al-Rumayyan added that the Saudis are spending more than $20 billion annually on international tourism. To his way of thinking, he asked rhetorically, “Why the hell are they not spending time here in Saudi?”
That sentiment is why the government is welcoming the European Tour and other attractions, such as Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, WWE wrestling and the World Boxing Super Series final, to Saudi Arabia.
The initiative will create more jobs, expand the oil-dependent economy, raise the nation’s gross domestic product – it was $770 billion in 2018, ranking 18th in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund – and improve the lives of many average Saudi citizens.
Now, I know that in the little golf hub of Orlando, geopolitics and geoeconomics might mean very little, but in an interconnected global economy, the effort is meaningful.
“For me, it was a very easy decision to come over,” American Patrick Reed. “I always thought any time I can actually feel like I make an impact and help the community as well as help the sport, I'm all for it.”
Let’s be clear. Chamblee is entitled to his opinion – he’s a paid commentator, after all. But to suggest that others – in this case, the players who choose to compete here – are not is disingenuous. To suggest that he knows what is best for the European Tour and the touring pros is arrogant and ironically somewhat dictatorial.
None of us is all-knowing, and this gesture by the European Tour to bring an event to Saudi Arabia may or may not work well. But if tour officials don’t try to expand into new markets, are they being good stewards of the game?
One of the main reasons why golf sought to rejoin the Olympics in 2016 after a 112-year absence was to expand the game worldwide. This week’s Saudi International is all about that goal. We can all only hope that the other political concerns will be positively influenced by what happens inside and outside of the ropes.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli